The ashes of a career fell through the air, breaking up into ever smaller pieces before carpeting the surface of what was back then known as Hisense Arena. They hissed there, snake-like, puffing up steam into an emotionally charged atmosphere and the crowd were all too happy to bathe in it as they listened.
The man they were enraptured by stood on court, deep in the broken shadows of a journey he’d tried desperately to prolong.
There were no tears from him here. They’d all been used up in a pre-match press conference just days before, where he’d slumped over a desk and emptied himself of his honest thoughts to the waiting world press.
Indeed, he seemed somewhat at ease in defeat now, surprising though this was given the magnitude of the match he’d just lost.
Maybe he knew then that this wasn’t really The End, although The End was intent on making its presence felt as it hung thick in the muggy Melbourne night. The End was dripping from everything that evening, oozing particularly from the big screen showing a video of his greatest rivals clumsily saying their goodbyes and wishing him safe passage into the looming darkness of unknown pastures.
He looked on awkwardly as he took it in, uncertainty clearly visible, etched into the lines of his face, wrinkling his eyes.
“Maybe I’ll be back here someday… I don’t know. We’ll see. I’ll try everything to make it happen…”
If anyone was going to leave their career in the jaws of cliff-hanger proportions, it would be the Scotsman. His dour humour and never-say-die attitude had brought him far but his unwillingness to wander freely into the goodnight of closing time brought with it more questions than answers.
Never once had the man from Dunblane uttered the word that now danced across the tongues of tennis fans everywhere – “retired?”
Anyone watching that night saw the image of a man who’d done everything and been offered nothing, hobbling blindly into a future that he’d been fighting off for so long, and leaving behind a sport that he’d long loved but that loved him back no-longer.
The lengthy arms of the finish line reached out in an action that resembled an unwanted embrace, folding, enveloping outwards and stretching after him as he limped off court after waving forlornly at a crowd that had seen so many of his almost-trophy-winning-triumphs over the years.
No glue strong enough existed to be able to avoid this final crack and Andy Murray’s heart was left in scattered glittery shards across the ground Down Under for one final time.
Or so we thought…
Three years on and three years older, his dice have fallen in slow motion, tumbling against the sides of the mug of Murray’s career and echoing as they spin there, unable to settle properly.
The Scot has spent a lot of time resuscitating his body, padding it back together with a patch-work of medical magic and surgical success.
A string of hit-and-miss injury-impacted efforts to return to form have characterised his last few seasons, the highlight of which was a title run in Antwerp at the tail end of 2019. That raised expectations but it’s been troublesome for him since, a mixed bag of solid first and second round wins enough to hold his ranking steadily out of reach of the top 100 return that he surely desperately craves.
Australia was oh-so tantalisingly close this time last year, his plane ticket booked, his wildcard accepted, before a positive Covid test filed his visa swiftly through the paper shredder. There was some cause for celebration not long after this with the arrival of his fourth child, his wife Kim Sears giving birth to a baby girl back in March.
In short, there’s been a lot going on off the court for him. Murray, though, does not deal in excuses, nor those of us that see it as our duty to make them for him. This is the man, after all, who crafted some of his biggest career moments in the immediate aftermath of many of his biggest career losses, his Olympic medals lying tangled around the handles of his Wimbledon trophies as a symbol of perseverance in the face of terrifying repeat finals failures.
Indeed, Murray’s relationship with the Australian Open will forever remain a temperamental one. He’s reached more tournament finishes there than at any other Major, stacking high layer upon layer of silvery runner-up plates that reflect back his abundance of obvious nearly-there talent that he forever battled hard to overcome in his victories elsewhere.
Before the big one this year are a handful of smaller warm-up events, one of which has already come and gone, finished in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it first round stumbled defeat, a stall unneeded and eyebrow-creasing in its headache-inducing inconsistency. One more to come this week though and he’ll be demanding better of himself, the possibility a benchmark result from which he can build on going forward tempting him in.
This is an opportunity, a moment to take all that he still has and stamp it over the noticeboard of the ATP as a heads up:
“Still playing, still frightening.”
His return to Melbourne Park will undoubtedly be an odd one, representing what might well be the final pages of his career unfurling, dusting themselves back from the uncertainty that they would ever get the chance to be properly read.
But he won’t be there for the plaudits that’ll naturally come from people simply pleased to see his return. He’s not there for the celebrations of his fans, their pained reactions from this event three years prior already very much plaster-casted over by his mere presence on court again. He’s not there for the sympathy welcome-back, that aforementioned wave-goodbye-wait-but-it-might-not-be! video still angled memorably in the minds of those that watched it. And he’s not there for a final nostalgic last-hurrah out-of-breath end-of-the-line give-it-a-go go-around.
He’s there to try.
And he may well fail.
But he’ll damn well try.
Murray’s games with Gods over the years had resulted in hip deterioration, the joint wearing away and dusting, holding him permanently in a limp when walking. To be able to mail as many big titles as he did through bars severely guarded by household names took a level of stick-at-it-ability that was unmatched at his peak but brought about an injury that threatened the only thing that he’d ever really known.
He’s here now though, slowed slightly and weary but ready to take us down a pathway that not even he knows, enormous question-marks foresting up from the pavement edges, threatening to overflow and burst fourth in an all-consuming fashion and only held back from doing so by the monstrous persistence of the man passing through while searching for his perfect ending.
And what of his heart, you ask?
Well, it hangs back in his chest now, having been scooped up and taped together in a very messily-but-very-Murray fashion, his desire driving him forward to properly complete a part of his life that he isn’t yet ready to move on from.
If this is the beginning of the end however, he’s going out swinging ugly and still willing.